Writing and Reading for Pleasure: Looking for Gold | Douglas Burcham

Douglas continues his writing and reading for pleasure posts by looking for reading gold.


“I’m going to Waterstones to look for gold,” I announce to my wife.

“You would do better to go to a jeweller for something for me, or pan the rivers of Yukon or South Africa and if the latter I will come as well.”

I would not expect to find gold in those rivers. However, going to Leamington Spa Waterstones to browse and make a notional list of book titles for a TIPM post looked easy, almost a gold plated expectation. How did I fool myself? Apart from my nightmares about oceans of books, the journey proved to be an enjoyable exercise – did I find gold or not? Read on to find out.

Since November 2014, I went on many days to my local branch of Waterstones and many other branches across the country, browsing for books in short sessions where I enjoyed the ambiance of using the last reasonable sized High Street bookshop chain. Most times the shops were busy with hardcopy book browsers and buyers of all ages, quieter than my local library, full of colour and with too much choice in books.

That is not to say I did not find a possible shopping bag full of gold book choices for all the family.

  • Goldfinch – by Donna Tartt; this book seems to have sold well with mixed reviews.
  • Goldie HawnGiving Children Ten Minutes (and I hope reading attention).
  • Goldilocks and the three bears.
  • Goldfinger by James Bond, and I can hear the music and the voice of Shirley Bassey

I am surprised I did not find a book with a full gold coloured cover.

Looking at the usual banner to this post, there is gold in the pen nib and background and also in Stephen King’s words in his book, On Writing. Stephen King’s Golden Years, a DVD, is all I could find for him on a web search, so another book title for Stephen with ‘gold’ in it awaits.

In my school day economics I learnt about the theory of utility; a glass of water is worth much more in a desert than at home in the UK where water can be overwhelming, especially if you are standing at the seaside or in floods. The sheer volume of water in oceans is beyond comprehension, although a glass of sea water is worth less to drink than pure water in a desert or at home. In my mind, standing on a beach, I look out to a sea full of books and image oceans of other books beyond which most titles I am never going to know anything about. A recent browse of a psychology reading website listed its dozen bestselling books over the last three years. I did not recognise any of the titles but found a relevant title for my own writing. Yes, there are an awful lot of book titles worth looking for out there!

Alexandra Horowitz from ‘On Looking’ (2013) with the following cover quote:

Did you know we miss most of what is around us? As we go about our daily lives — walking, talking, working — we actually do not perceive much of what is before our very eyes?

Similarly the number of books in circulation and those even listed by Waterstones as bestsellers (some 900k plus this week) underlines again to me the difficulty any new writer has when successfully negotiating through all the stages of the writing and publishing cycle. You as the new Golden Book writer may already have followed the long tortuous Allrighters Snakes and Ladders path below, between writer, potential reader or paper pulping plant.

Creative writing > the first words > first pages > drafts > corrections > restructuring > self-editing > restructuring again > professional editing > editors comments > establishing a name as a writer through competition entries > searching for an agent or publisher > rejection, rejection, rejection many more times > acceptance > forensic editing > rewriting > further editing > having to compromise with the publisher on parts of YOUR story > setting up for printing > falling out over cover design and changing YOUR title because you are informed they are putting up the money and you have only written the book! > printing > publicity > distribution > placing by a Waterstones assistant —passionate about book selling and your GOLDEN BOOK on the shelf or on display, perhaps even with one of their lovely little personalised sales notes. > On display WAITING to be bought. Not selling > return to Go do not collect £ > copies to the Works or paper pulping plant.

I have taken the traditional publishing path in this post because these are the books I am going to be viewing in Waterstones. The e-book path or self-publishing path may be easier?

I walk into the shop and find myself in a sea of some 30,000 books, your Golden Book amongst them. What are the odds of me coming across your Golden Book by browsing and then picking it up and even buying it? A mathematician reading this post could probably assess the probability.

Somehow the marketing of the Golden Book by the publisher or yourself must alert me beforehand to the presence of your book for sale.

FearI tend to clam up in my shell when anyone tries to sell something to me, so the Waterstones (‘passionate about books’ as in their mission statement) assistant is unlikely to be able to match me with your book. The main reason being, I now realise, is we have 4,000 to 5,000 books at home already and the marginal utility of another is insufficient to make me hungry enough to buy your Golden Book or many others, especially if fiction, even if price is not an issue. I also have a command from my wife not to buy any more books, negotiated down to approval to do so only if I send five books to the charity shop for every one I buy or acquire. At this rate I may get the total numbers down to 1,000 in ten year’s time. I see many books I already have on my bookshelves still for sale in Waterstones and amazingly one book published in 1997 now in a special edition. Susan Jeffer’s – Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway: How to Turn Your Fear and Indecision into Confidence and Action.

This is a throwback to a time when I used to love all the personal development and management books. I laugh now… did I really! Hey, on second thoughts maybe the message is relevant to being a writer. Just where is my copy? … Ha, found it for £4.99 and another book of hers including a letter in 1997 reminding me my employment situation was in a mess back then! Perhaps my life is more ordered than I thought now.

I see you sitting at a table signing hardback first editions of your fiction Golden Book. Good, you are still smiling after travelling the long path through publishing to bookshop sale, and I think… well done! I then feel embarrassed… I should support new authors, but I think what I can buy for the £20.00 full cover price of your book. And you can get three bottles of Argentine Malbec reduced in Tesco this week or a couple of ready made meals.

Of course the final laugh could be on me and my children when a signed first edition of your book sells for £20,000 in twenty years time and is indeed golden. What I will most likely continue to do for most new fiction (other than newly published Jack Reacher, Robert Galbraith and Robert Harris hardbacks) is to put them on my ‘to read sometime list’ and wait for the book to arrive, especially in large print format, in the local public library, or if not, maybe a paperback or a used hardback will turn up in a charity or used bookshop somewhere.

Suddenly I hear in my head Duncan Beal of York Publishing Services talking in Yorkshire:

Nobody buys your book if they do not know it exists.

How right you are Duncan, and getting them to know if you are not already infamous is to me the hardest part of the whole writing and publishing cycle.

Last week Jeffrey Archer was on radio and in the UK national press and I knew immediately he must have another book to be published. I assume he contacts these media outlets every time and they give him the necessary oxygen of publicity for all those customers to swarm in around me in Waterstones on the 25th February to buy his new book. At least he found time when I wrote to him about his Prison Diaries to respond in person and he also gave me encouragement to write on and complete my million draft words. But hey! How do you as the Golden Book author get me to buy your book? I know you will contact the BBC or some other media outlet, but unfortunately I expect them to say in best ‘Catch 22’ manner: “Sorry you are not famous.”

Speaking on a radio programme last week, Jeffery Archer made a valid point about energy and talent:

  • Energy and talent = King
  • Talent plus energy = Prince
  • Talent plus no energy = Pauper (I know the feeling from my book sales well!)

So I come back to my cop out, for the time being, of Writing and Reading for Pleasure.


Browsing for reading gold

If you, David Miller, James Robertson, Jen Campbell, Steven Pinker or Peter Boxall then rejoice as I did, and buy one of your books from Waterstones recently.

“Can I help you?” the pretty assistants often say when they approach me in many shops.

I like many others will say, “Just browsing.”

Although overcome initially by the sheer volume of books, ‘just browsing’ has eventually worked for me in Waterstones since November because one thing leads to another, albeit on a much smaller scale than I expected.

Before Christmas the only book on my shopping list radar was a Giles 2015 as I liked the cover to this year’s edition.

I purchased a copy, noting the current captions on each page explaining what the particular cartoon was all about. In past years I feel I may have objected to this as stating the obvious. However, even my memory is struggling to go back to when they were all drawn, so this is helpful to the enjoyment of this wonderful record of social history. The Giles needed little marketing for me to buy this year, apart from a great cover, which tipped the balance for a purchase. My thoughts turn again to marketing.

What got The Girl on the Train in front of the right people at the right time was its publisher.


No-one buys a book because it has Allen Lane on the spine (so they say).

These are quotes from The Bookseller this month. I also recall reading a blog post about the successful use of ‘girl’ in many recent bestselling fiction titles rather than ‘woman’.

Shopping and browsing for new and used books forms a large part of my whole writing and reading for pleasure and leisure activity. Although my purchase of Giles 2015 was planned, my next purchase in Waterstones wasn’t.

365 StoriesBefore I started my browsing in Waterstones, I did not expect to have any fiction or children’s books on my list from the high value space displays on the ground floor. I would, however, be an upstairs shopper where most of the non-fiction books are located. I am more likely to buy new. Early in January after inspecting the latest design fashions for fiction book covers, I walked towards the stairs only to have my eye caught by a simple red cover facing me on a corner display: 365 Stories by James Robertson.

This became the first impulse buy for a reason. My writing is a series of short stories, all unusual fiction memories, with a touch of fantasy and truth stitched together into novella and longer books. James Robertson wrote 365 stories of 365 words each for his publisher’s website and these have been collected together in a book. As soon as I dipped into it and started reading, I had a cold shiver and wondered if I had wasted my money because I didn’t like the first two stories. I pondered whether — like similar selections by short story competition judges conditioned by norms and rules of the literary world — the book would not fulfil my expectations. It could also be a let down from the favourable book reviews I checked out before purchase. Phew, my initial worries proved unfounded. Reading on, I found an amazing variety of writing, demonstrating a good short storyteller’s craft.

1001 BooksAs I wanted to test the working of Waterstones deliver-to-shop system, I ordered online and collected and paid for the book from Waterstones in Stratford-upon-Avon who had it in stock. This system, as promoted on their plastic bags, appears to work well for Waterstones because the inevitable happened to me because while upstairs browsing, I found 1001 books you must read before you die on special offer. First rule of High Street Retail – get the punters in and do not let them leave before buying something.

I always chuckle when I see these thick books whether they are about places to see or movies to watch. One really needs to start doing the 1001 actions when young, but the problem is having the time and money. When one has the money, time is running out! I try and read 100 books a year so it would take me ten years to read all these books as a ‘Munro’ mountain climbing exercise. The book (as well as a nice coffee table item) will allow browsing for cover designs and I will no doubt be inspired to read some of the 1001 books from the descriptions from A thousand and one nights to The Art of Fielding in 2011. When I have looked through the book, it may form the subject of another post. The book also provides good examples of how to write a synopsis to attract readers to each of the 1001 books as well as cover design and a catchy quote. The Man with the Golden Arm 1949 ‘The novel mingles the true crime titillation of pulp fiction and low journalism with the crusading zeal of sociological investigation.’ A book to be missed?

The Bookshop BookOn returning downstairs I also noticed another little book on special offer and could not resist an impulse purchase. While not entirely out of the blue, I had enjoyed Jen Campbell’s The Bookshop Book: Weird things customers say in bookshops.

Incidentally, I have identified a possible gap in the market for a book about how to run a bookshop because repeated web searches produce few articles, let alone books. This has sparked a thought for another future post subject. The Bookseller’s Association has a book on the way. With all the bookshop closures of recent times, the issue is depressing, but then a read of Jen’s book gives high hopes for bookshops with character and I am sure there will always be brave souls willing to run bookshops more for love than money. Her section on the bookshop in Morecambe is a gem and had special resonance after our visit last December.

It reminded me of something a guide in the National Gallery was saying about a large painting when I passed by:

I could talk to you all day about this painting.

Perhaps he could, but not to me! So this a good point to start to bring this post to a conclusion by mentioning the real golden read I found in my Waterstones browsing of the last three months. I cannot recall where I found the title. Perhaps it was when I was browsing for readers’ reviews on the 365 Stories.

All I can remember now is seeing a little book cover picture and flicking through several good reviews. The book was out-of-stock on Amazon but I found it available on the Waterstones website, so I purchased it as a test of the web purchase and delivery-to-store system. I received an email saying the book had arrived locally and went and asked, but it could not be found downstairs or upstairs. The reasons for this were because I was expecting and looking for a small book while the assistants were looking for a book and not a brown cardboard parcel. An exercise in looking per Alexandra Horowitz!

Having found a large, brown, cardboard parcel with my name on it in their reserved bookrack, I suggested it should be opened because I had not expected a large parcel. I felt like one of those joke Christmas presents when a small item is deliberately overwrapped.

GlimpseWhat came out of the parcel delivered from Waterstones HUB Warehouse in Burton-on-Trent was a surprise; a beautiful, very large 965 page hardback book, a golden reading gem, which will be of great help to me in my short story writing and even more confirmation of Stephen King’s advice to read widely. I feel sometimes I am cheating by reading anthologies, but they do allow one to sample more authors at a time given I am fast running out of time. Also, because my writing is short story-based, Glimpse is highly relevant to the way I write: That Glimpse of Truth: A 100 of the finest stories ever written.

Whether I agree with David Miller’s selections and view these as the best short stories ever written is another issue. Already I am finding a few are ‘literary’ works rather than ‘good stories’ and another is an insensitive inclusion.

The best story to date for me so far is across two pages; The Children of Hameln by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It certainly is a grim story, but a good example of the five act structure.

Problem, solution and price agreed; solution provided, payment withheld, children taken. It’s a strong parable for life.

A little aloudThere is no accident in my buying choice of 365 and Glimpse as short stories. The purchase of these books marks a consolidation of my own writing direction and a decision to write more of my books as collections of short stories with bridging commentary which can be read individually or as part of a larger story. Incidentally, my last golden reading gem found early last year was another anthology A little aloud and later the companion children’s version.

For my next post I have several ideas developing out of this post. The one selected will depend on my mood and Mick Rooney’s willingness to accept!

I should also add that you will notice the book links above are to the recently upgraded Waterstones website relaunched a little over a week ago.

The website is not as powerful for searching as Amazon.co.uk and also slower on my computers, but I have migrated many of my searches to Waterstones because a couple of books I wanted early in January including Glimpses above and Edwin Lutyen’s Country Houses were shown as TEMPORARILY out-of-stock on Amazon (still the case as of Feb 25th) but in stock in Waterstones. This is unusual for Amazon, but it shows how fickle a customer like me can be if I cannot get what I want when I want it. So Amazon you have lost some of my business. Hurrah, I hear many of you say!

(PS) Glimpses is now also shown as out of-stock at Waterstones, so I am lucky with the contents of my brown paper parcel and quite happy to forsake a bottle of Malbec and a readymade meal!

My head is still spinning from all this browsing in oceans of books and the nightmares such as in the Type Bookshop as follows. (Sorry there may be an ad first time … worth waiting for the show.)

There is nothing like a real book!

DouglasDouglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney of TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters, including his fantasy twin brother Alexander, took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their 2014 and 2015 Writing Plans, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are trying to convert a million words of draft writing completed in January 2014 into several reader friendly books totaling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Progress in 2014 has been slow as Douglas and the Allrighters prefer new creative writing to editing and restructuring existing writing.

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